Long-standing local restaurants
HAMMONTON—Hammonton has long been known for the high quality of its many restaurants. That reputation for great food and service has kept many family-owned establishments in business for decades, and shows no signs of stopping.
Joe Italiano’s Maplewood—located at 470 S. White Horse Pike—for example, has been open since 1945.
“I grew up here. Since eighth grade, I used to work in the kitchen with my dad. I remember cooking together, and fooling around in the kitchen, and taking our good ol’ time cleaning, and we wouldn’t get done until midnight because we fooled around so much. Then, we’d have to prep food late at night. Our whole family life was based around the restaurant,” said owner Jimmy Italiano.
That family aspect, Italiano said, is part of what has allowed the Maplewood to survive for more than 75 years.
“I think, originally, it was the fact that my grandfather, my grandmother, my Aunt Rose, my father, Joe and us kids all worked together in the restaurant, and we cared. I think that’s what’s behind it. It was always family, for the most part, and still has a good amount of family. They care about the food going out, and we always try our best to be consistent,” Italiano said.
Since Italiano took charge of the restaurant in the late 1990s, several changes have been made that have helped the restaurant continue to thrive.
“I knew that we needed to upgrade the building, the way things looked, stuff of that nature. It was a lot of physical things that I had to tackle. We had to modernize. We looked a little dated, and we weren’t set for longevity. It wasn’t going to be sustainable. I brought a lot of systems, better systems to the way we did things. I started trying to raise up leaders—people who were with us and cared, like the family—things of that nature,” Italiano said.
However, Italiano made sure not to change what continues to draw customers: the food.
“What remains the same is the way we make our gravy, the meatballs, the cooking. We still cook our pasta to order,” Italiano said.
Italiano said that the restaurant may have grown and changed, but he “tried to keep the same culture.”
“When you come to the Maplewood, I always wanted to make sure that you feel like you know the people, the extension of us, of the family. We have a lot of long-term employees. I didn’t disrupt a lot of the things that people liked, which was the culture. I think there’s a tendency, when you grow or get a little more modern, you lose what was special. I realized I needed to protect what made the Maplewood a little different—which was, really, the people, the culture, and, of course, the food,” Italiano said.
That culture has grown out of a family atmosphere, and Italiano said that the restaurant has “always been a close-knit family in a lot of ways.”
“It gets a little harder nowadays, because you’re hiring so many different people, but we always try to have each others’ backs. We work together as a family. That’s really our mission: exceptional hospitality and legendary food for everyone who walks through our doors, every day, all the time. That’s our creed,” Italiano said.
Not too far from Joe Italiano’s Maplewood is Royale Crown Ice Cream and Grille, located at 1051 S. White Horse Pike.
Royale Crown was started by Louis and Evelyn Graziano in 1953, and is now owned and operated by their son, Louis Graziano, and Gina Haupin.
Graziano said that his family has had a long association with dairy products, a fact he remembers fondly.
“Early on in his career, before they decided to open up Royale Crown, my dad was an Abbott milk driver, and he eventually had the Creamy Top ice cream truck that used to go around for ice cream service. I used to like to drive around in that truck ... For people to read about our story, we started a website—royalecrownicecream.com—this year, and they can see a picture of that Creamy Top truck on there,” Graziano said.
Graziano said that he believes there are two reasons that Royale Crown has stayed a town staple for 68 years.
“The whole operation has been very rewarding, and especially to have your children involved in it ... We have a great family organization. Secondly, we have fantastic products that we sell; they’re very high-quality. People can tell the difference between our products and cheap imitations,” Graziano said.
The consistent nature of those products is what keeps customers coming back.
“We’ve kept the same formulas for success over all the years. We don’t like to change anything, and Hammontonians don’t like change. We try to keep it the way it is, except for integrating new ice cream flavors and new ice cream cake designs, and keeping the tradition of great food service,” Graziano said.
Even the building has undergone relatively few changes to its façade, though there has been an expansion.
“We incorporated a party room on the side, where we have children’s parties and can accommodate for occasions up to 60 people,” Graziano said.
Though Royale Crown is well-known—and its seasonal annual opening is eagerly anticipated by many—in Hammonton, Graziano holds that they are “Hammonton’s best kept secret.”
“They don’t like to tell other people around us because then the lines would get longer and they don’t want to stand in longer lines,” Graziano said.
Penza’s Pies at the Red Barn Café, located at 391 Route 206, was also a well-kept local secret—until Al Roker came to town in 2004.
“He put us on the map. He needed something for his Thanksgiving show, and he knew about our pumpkin ricotta pie. I told him to forget it,” owner Evelyn Penza said.
Penza recalled that she told Roker’s representatives from Food Network that she had one son getting engaged in July and another being married on Labor Day, and she simply didn’t have the time.
“I said, ‘I know what you people do. You put something on, and they think there’s a machine in the back that just throws out all these pies.’ Anyway, they did come in the fall. It was so nice; so wonderful. They spent the entire day here; of course, it was just a two-minute segment—and it’s never been the same since then. The ricotta is such a popular, popular pie—in the early summer, we put strawberries on it, we put whatever is in season on top of it—and in the fall we make the pumpkin ricotta which is absolutely fantastic. It was a big hit. It was great,” Penza said.
Penza said that when the Red Barn opened in 1971, the pies were “miniscule.”
“We had a thriving business with the café, but it wasn’t a café then. It was just a tiny luncheonette, and we were the only show on the road—but times were better then, it seemed. We had two shifts; we’d start early in the morning and we’d end late at night, as opposed to now, where we start early in the morning and we finish up at around 2 p.m. with the café. We had a thriving farm at that time, also, so there was lots of produce. It was great—and we were young, and it was lots and lots of fun. We had a ball. We had an absolute ball,” Penza said.
Penza said that they still have fun at work, though one thing has changed.
“We were young. We had plenty of energy. We worked hard. Now, we still work hard, but we’re not young,” Penza said.
The satisfaction of a happy customer, however, makes the hard work worth it.
“The nicest thing about this whole business is the gratification you get when you make someone happy. You can’t beat it. Someone recently traveled so far just to have our peach pancakes. I said, ‘The kitchen’s closed, but don’t worry; I’ll make them, anyway.’ Even though the grill and everything was all cleaned up, he was out of his mind. He just loved the peach pancakes,” Penza said.
Each customer, Penza said, is unique.
“Everybody is different—and they all have a story. Everybody’s got a story, and they love the stories I tell them—about my father, the bootlegger and his brother-in-law, the U.S. Marshall—and they love to hear all the old stories; they really do,” Penza said.
For Penza, the Red Barn Café is home.
“My house? I don’t know what it looks like in the daytime. I’m here from 5:15 every morning, and I stay all day long. You have to like what you’re doing. You can’t be motivated by something other than liking it. You have to really like it, and I like it because it’s a connection to the past, it’s a connection to my parents and my grandparents, and now my grandchildren feel that same connection,” Penza said.
Just up the road, at 20 S. White Horse Pike, is the Silver Coin Diner, which has been home for owner George Tzaferos for 40 years—and he has no plans of going anywhere anytime soon.
“There were many opportunities to sell the place—I was approached from Wawa and other companies—but I didn’t want to sell it. I want to stay here; we did have another three more places—the Meadows Diner in Blackwood, the Midway in Buena, the pizzeria in Landisville—we sold them, but the Silver Coin was the original one. That’s what I started from, and I want to keep that,” Tzaferos said.
The Silver Coin is also home to a number of long-term employees whom Tzaferos values.
“They learned next to me. They work in the kitchen, so they’ve been with me—about five different people, five or six of them—they’ve been with me 25, 30, 35 years. They helped a lot for the success of the place, because they learned the business next to me, working in the kitchen,” Tzaferos said.
When the diner first opened in February of 1981, it offered—among other things—a private dining room, a salad bar and 24-hour service. Tzaferos said that change was necessary for the restaurant to move into the future.
“It was a very small place when we bought it. Through the years, I renovated about three different times, and gave a different look to the place, because, usually in restaurants, you have to do that every 10 or 15 years. You have to give something new to the people. That helped me a lot, renovating and putting the money that we made back into the business,” Tzaferos said.
Tzaferos attributes the diner’s longevity to three things.
“I try to provide my customers with good food, good service and a clean place for them to be able to enjoy a day out, a lunch, breakfast or dinner—whatever they are planning to have. Those three things allowed me to stay in business for a long time,” Tzaferos said.
Those three things, Tzaferos said, have also helped to draw a number of celebrities to the Silver Coin Diner.
“We’ve had many famous people that went by the place throughout the years—and my mistake was that I didn’t take any pictures with them to have the evidence of that—but we’ve had a lot of very well-known people,” Tzaferos said.
Tzaferos said that, among the more well-known, were boxing trainer Carmen Graziano, former N.J. Governor Christine Todd Whitman, singer Tony Bennett, five-time Olympic gold medalist Nadia Comăneci, Maria Shriver and a future president of the United States of America.
“When Joe Biden was a senator, he and his wife used to come every summer when they were going by Hammonton,” Tzaferos said.
Another presidential visit served to be a big day a few blocks down from the Silver Coin. At Rocco’s Town House, located at 21 N. Third St., co-owner Dave Ruberton remembers Ronald Reagan’s stop in Hammonton on September 19, 1984 warmly.
“That was a great day in Hammonton, when the people were out celebrating, and we were right here in the middle of it all, being so close,” he said.
At the time, the restaurant, which opened in 1983, was virtually brand-new.
“My father was doing catering as Golden Kettle Caterers, so we opened that first year as Golden Kettle Inn. My father passed away about a year after we opened, and that’s when my brother and I changed the name to Café San Rocco. We changed it to Rocco’s Town House to bring back the old, original Townhouse name it; that’s got to be about 15 or 20 years now,” co-owner Steve Ruberton said.
Steve Ruberton noted that customers have not always been quick to accept the name changes.
“When we first changed the name to Café San Rocco, everybody was still calling it The Townhouse. When we changed the name to Rocco’s Town House, everybody continued to call it Café San Rocco. There’s definitely a lag time in name change,” he said.
The name isn’t the only thing that has changed at Rocco’s Town House since 1983.
“We changed the style of our restaurant. We changed the bar as town changed and the downtown started to blossom; we changed everything along with it. With the theater and nightly activities downtown, the whole demographic of downtown restaurants all changed from back in the 1980s ... For years, we did a lot of catering, and we did everything we could to stay in business. Now, the restaurant and bar have really come a long way, and our catering? We don’t do nearly as much as we used to; we just don’t have the room or the time anymore. We still do a little bit, but our main focus has been the restaurant and bar. Now, we have downstairs with the Rock Bottom Whiskey Bar; that’s a new venture for us over the last few years, so we’ve been trying to develop that,” Steve Ruberton said.
Steve Ruberton said that he and his brother have always adapted to “what we thought the town needed.”
“We always tried to stay a half-step ahead in doing that. Most of the time it worked out; sometimes it didn’t, but it kept us here. We try to anticipate what customers in town would want, and try to provide that to them as best we can,” he said.
Dave Ruberton said that listening to the customer’s wants and needs is paramount to staying relevant in an ever-changing industry.
“Customers today look for a more niche menu instead of a menu that reads like a book, a smaller menu with terrific, somewhat unique items, as opposed to a big menu with all the standards. People look for that when they go out to a place. We try to keep it fresh and local and unique as best we can,” he said.
Pleasing local customers, Steve Ruberton said, is a high priority at Rocco’s Town House.
“Even though we get a lot of out-of-town people, we always try to keep the locals happy because they’ve supported us for so long,” he said.
That support, Dave Ruberton said, has stayed consistent since 1983.
“Most people are still as good-hearted as they ever were, and they’re still out looking for a nice meal—and appreciate it when they get it. That’s remained the same,” he said.
For Steve Ruberton, perhaps the most rewarding aspect of being co-owner of Rocco’s Town House for so long is being able to work with his brother.
“I know it’s a challenge, sometimes, working with family, but we were fortunate. We were always very close, so, even though we had some differences, we always work through them. That’s probably been the best part of working here: being able to work with my brother for that long,” he said.
Dave Ruberton agreed, noting that the two share three very important things in common.
“We like what we’re doing, we like to eat and we like good food,” he said.